Reversal of Demand-Withdraw
Gender Roles in University Couples
Kristina N. Rynes, Michael J. Rohrbaugh, & Varda Shoham
University of Arizona
Western Psychological Association, Phoenix, AZ
Consistent with the "social structure" hypothesis, demand and withdraw roles of
partners in 88 heterosexual couples reversed symmetrical y according to whether
the problem they discussed was more salient to the woman or the man. Reversal
was robust across age, marital status, and relationship duration, but appeared
more pronounced in couples reporting high relationship quality.
Research suggests that women are more likely to make demands and men are more
likely to withdraw when couples discuss a problem in their relationship. One explanation
is that men and women are simply different by virtue of either their socialization
(Gil igan, 1982) or their biology (Gottman & Levenson, 1988). Alternatively, the "social
structure" hypothesis suggests that women are more often in the demand role because
they more often find themselves in situations where men are satisfied with the status
quo while women seek to change it.
Attempts to test this hypothesis by manipulating whose issue a couple discusses (one
important to the man vs. the woman) have yielded mixed results. For example, in
laboratory studies employing both observational and self-report measures of the two
demand-withdraw patterns, Christensen and Heavey (1990) and Heavey et al. (1993)
found only partial reversal of the female-demand/male-withdraw (FD/MW) pattern, such
that gender-role differences occurred when the couple discussed the woman's issue
(FD/MW > MD/FW) but not the man's (MD/FW = FD/MW). Klinetob and Smith (1996),
on the other hand, were able to show ful reversal of the two patterns with somewhat
younger couples given more freedom in selecting the topics they discussed
While most demand-withdraw gender comparisons have been observational and
laboratory-based, the present study reexamined the reversal question naturalistical y by
having university couples recal and describe situations in which discussions focused on
"his issue" and "her issue." We also sought to examine situational demand-withdraw
reversal as a function of relationship commitment and duration (factors that could
account for the discrepancy between the Heavey-Christensen and Klinetob-Smith
results), as wel as the possible moderating role of the couple's reported relationship
Rynes, Rohrbaugh, & Shoham 2
Heterosexual couples (N=88) recruited from upper-division university courses
completed matched questionnaires after agreeing on two specific conflict situations –
one more important to the man (his issue) and one to the woman (her issue). Each
partner independently described the two situations qualitatively (in writing), then made
quantitative ratings of how the couple interacted in each situation using
demand/withdraw items from Christensen's Communication Patterns Questionnaire.
Additional ratings confirmed the differential importance of the two situations, and the
partners completed a validated, 24-item Relationship Questionnaire that provided an
overal measure of their relationship quality.
Al couples considered themselves in a "love" relationship and 20% were married.
Median relationship duration was 1.9 years (M = 3.0, range = .5 – 18), and median
participant age was 22 years (M = 24.8, range = 18 – 57).
The two demand-withdraw patterns were examined in a repeated-measures analysis of
variance (ANOVA), with Role (FD/MW v. MD/FW), Issue (his v. hers), and Reporter Sex
(male v. female) as within-couple sources of variance. A strong Role x Issue interaction
(F [1, 84] = 68.53, p < .001) confirmed the presence of reversed demand-withdraw
gender roles, as shown in Figure 1. The only other notable effect was a marginal y
significant Role x Sex interaction (p = .051), indicating that men were somewhat more
likely to differentiate demand-withdraw gender roles than women.
Reversal of Demand-Withdraw
Roles by Issue
Demand-withdraw Level 1
Rynes, Rohrbaugh, & Shoham 3
To examine relationship duration, marital status, and relationship quality as possible
between-case moderators of the reversal effect, we added various splits on these
variables in mixed-model ANOVA designs and found no hints of 3-way interactions that
could link role reversal to marital status or relationship duration.
Relationship quality, on the other hand, did interact with Role and Issue (F [1, 82] =
4.94, p = .029), as shown in Figure 2, where the demand-withdraw role reversal
appears more pronounced for high- compared to lower-quality relationships. Post-hoc
comparisons indicate partners in high-quality relationships reported less demand-
withdraw than those in low-quality relationships, but only when discussing their partner's
issue and not their own.
Demand-Withdraw Roles by Issue
Demand-Withdraw Level 0
Consistent with the social-structure hypothesis, the results replicate those of Klinetob
and Smith (1996) in showing a symmetrical pattern of demand-withdraw role reversal
according to whose issue the couple discussed, the man’s or the woman’s. This
reversal occurred regardless of whether the reporter was male or female, though men
overal were somewhat more likely than women to differentiate demand-withdraw roles
We found no evidence that role reversal is attenuated by relationship duration or
commitment (marriage), though the relatively restricted range of these variables in our
university sample could be a factor in these nul findings.
Although role reversal also occurred across different levels of relationship quality,
couples with lower quality reported more demand-withdraw when discussing their
Rynes, Rohrbaugh, & Shoham 4
partner’s issue compared to those with high quality. Thus, even when an issue was
unimportant to them, low-quality couples stil demanded and withdrew more than the
happier couples, which could reflect relative rigidity of communication patterns (Klinetob
& Smith, 1996).
In sum, the results support the social structure hypothesis by highlighting the
mal eability of demand-withdraw gender roles among university students who recal
(rather than enact) situations of differential but balanced importance to the two partners.
Whether older, more established, or more traditional couples would respond similarly is
Christensen, A., & Heavey, C. L. (1990). Gender and social structure in the
demand/withdraw pattern of marital conflict. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 59 (1), 73-81.
Gil igan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s
development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1988). The social psychophysiology of marriage.
In P. Nol er & M. A. Fitzpatrick (Eds.), Perspectives on marital interaction (pp.
182-200). Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters.
Heavey, C. L., Layne, C. & Christensen, A. (1993). Gender and conflict structure in
marital interaction: A replication and extension. Journal of Consulting and
Clinical Psychology, 61 (1), 16-27.
Klinetob, N. A., & Smith, D. A. (1996). Demand-withdraw communication in marital
interaction: Tests of interspousal contingency and gender role hypotheses.
Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58, 945-957.
Correspondence address: Kristina N. Rynes, Department of Psychology, University of
Arizona, P.O. Box 210068, Tucson, AZ 85721-0068 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).